Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Alta Peak

Great Western Divide from Alta Peak
14 miles round trip, 4000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park entrance fee required

As the only High Sierra peak accessible on a day hike by a maintained trail within California’s Sequoia National Park (besides Mount Whitney), Alta Peak delivers the sweeping panoramas you’d expect of a peak of its name. This lofty summit is accessible by a long and tough day hike from the edge of the Giant Forest area and offers the sort of High Sierra views generally only reserved for serious backpackers. The route to reach the summit is long but scenic and makes this one of the premiere day hikes of Sequoia National Park. The peak’s 11208-foot height may be enough to induce altitude sickness for some hikers, so pay attention to your body’s signals as you hike.

The 7-mile distance from the trailhead at Wolverton to Alta Peak can be broken down into four legs: an initial two-mile stretch along the Lakes Trail, an ensuing one mile stretch along the Panther Gap Trail to reach Panther Gap, a flatter two-mile segment on southern slopes of Alta Peak, and the final steep climb to the summit over the last two miles.

I hiked Alta Peak on a mid-May weekend during a year when a meager winter snowpack and early snowmelt made the hike possible about one to two months earlier than usual. The hike started from the Wolverton Trailhead in Sequoia National Park, which can be accessed from the Central Valley by either taking Highway 180 into Kings Canyon National Park or Highway 198 into Sequoia National Park. Both routes require taking Generals Highway to the stretch between Giant Forest and Lodgepole; the turnoff for Wolverton is well marked and heads east from Generals Highway. I followed Wolverton Road for about two miles to its end, passing the turnoff for the General Sherman Tree parking area along the way. There is a long parking lot with room for well over a hundred cars at the end of the Wolverton Road; the hike to Alta Peak starts from the segment of the parking lot just to the left of the entrance to the lot.

Leaving the Wolverton Trailhead, I started out by following the Lakes Trail north from the parking lot. The trail climbed briefly and in a hundred meters reached the crest of a ridge; here, the trail turned towards the right and began following the ridge to the east. The trail climbed steadily over the next 2/3 of a mile as it ascended along this forested ridge, passing patches of spring wildflowers. There were occasional peeks of rocky Mount Silliman rising on the other side of Tokopah Valley through the trees, but otherwise there were no real views to speak of in the opening stretch of the hike.

At a mile into the hike, the trail leveled out for a stretch and soon left the top of the ridge, instead passing through forested mountain slopes above Wolverton Creek while again ascending steadily. The forest gave way to some grassy and brushy clearings as the trail crossed a small creek; wildflowers were blooming quite nicely here in the spring, and I’ve spotted a bear in this area before. Just under 2 miles from the trailhead, I came to a fork in the trail: the Lakes Trail continued to the left while the Panther Gap Trail headed to the right.

Lodgepole pines on the Lakes Trail
I turned right at the junction to take the trail towards Panther Gap and Alta Peak. The trail continued climbing steadily, traveling mostly through the forest but occasionally passing through grassy clearings as it crossed multiple streams. After a mile of steady uphill ascent through the forest after leaving the Lakes Trail, I came to Panther Gap at just under 3 miles into the hike, arriving at the junction with the Alta Trail.

Panther Gap delivered the first views of the hike. While the north side of the saddle was forested, the south side was open, delivering a view across the Middle Fork Kaweah Valley to Castle Rocks. A portion of the Great Western Divide also featured to the left side of this view, including Sawtooth Peak and Vandever Mountain, two distinctive summits rising above Mineral King Valley. The Alta Trail split in two directions from Panther Gap, following the ridge both ways: the right fork led down to Giant Forest, while the left fork headed east towards Alta Peak. I took the left fork, which ascended for a bit along the ridge before heading out onto the exposed south slopes halfway up Alta Peak.

View of the Castle Rocks and the Great Western Divide from Panther Gap
The next mile to the junction with the High Sierra Cutoff Trail featured absolutely spectacular scenery, with the Great Western Divide’s snowy and rocky peaks unfurled majestically to the east. To the west, views extended past Castle Rocks into the dusty Sierra foothills. Rock formations near the trail were frequently quite interesting here: my favorite was a rock that had the profile of a standing bear.

View towards Castle Rocks and the foothills from the Alta Trail above Panther Gap
At 4 miles, the Alta Trail came to a junction with the High Sierra Cutoff Trail; while the High Sierra Cutoff Trail headed downhill and to the right to join the High Sierra Trail, I went straight through the junction to stay on the Alta Trail. The open views ended shortly afterwards, with the Alta Trail reentering a forest of stately lodgepole pines. The Alta Trail reached Mehrten Meadow, a popular campsite, not long after the High Sierra Cutoff junction, at 4.2 miles; a nice stream flowed next to the meadow but the meadow itself was quite underwhelming, just a small, sloping patch of grass in the forest.

Mehrten Meadow
The Alta Trail continued traveling through the forest, ascending gradually, until I came to the junction with the Alta Peak Trail at 5 miles from the trailhead. At this junction, the right fork led to Alta Meadow, an alpine meadow below the peak, while the left fork led up to Alta Peak’s high summit. Taking the left fork, I embarked on the final two miles of the climb, the steepest, highest elevation, and thus most strenuous stretch of the hike: with just two miles left, the trail climbed 2000 feet, packing in half of the hike’s elevation gain.

Leaving the junction with the Alta Trail, the Alta Peak Trail was initially somewhat open, with views of the Tharps Rock, a false summit of Alta Peak, rising directly above me. After a few hundred meters of hiking with some views of Alta Peak’s dramatic upper reaches rising above, the trail reentered the forest as it ascended persistently. The trail stuck to the forest for the next mile, although after rounding a corner on the ridge at 5.5 miles from the trailhead, occasional breaks in the trees provided astonishing and open views of the snowy granite peaks of the Great Western Divide.

Tharp's Rock
As the trail entered an alpine environment, flora and fauna of the highest elevations began to show up. I spotted a yellow-bellied marmot staring curiously at me: this cousin of the groundhog is common in subalpine and alpine terrain throughout the Sierra Nevada. Pasqueflower- a pretty, early-blooming flower that transitions to a fuzzy seed head later in summer- bloomed close to the ground.

Pasqueflower blooming
At 6 miles from the trailhead, the Alta Peak Trail made a sharp switchback; from here, there were magnificent views of the Great Western Divide rising above Alta Meadow in the foreground. As the trail reversed direction, it continued to climb aggressively up Alta Peak, with the lodgepole pines of the mid-elevations transitioning to the foxtail pines that appear just below the timberline. Foxtail pines are a close relative of the better known bristlecone pines that dot the Great Basin and live longer than any other tree; foxtail pines have similar wizened appearances to their cousins and also thrive in high altitude environments where other plants cannot survive, but they do not live nearly as long as their nearly 5000 year old cousins, with the oldest reported foxtail pines not even reaching half that number. These stout, windswept trees were the last arboreal outposts on Alta Peak before barren granite dominated the remainder of the peak’s height.

Foxtail pines and the Great Western Divide
At 6.3 miles from the trailhead, the Alta Peak Trail approached Tharps Rock, a massive granite outcropping that jutted out to the south from the main body of Alta Peak. Views from near the rock extended down into the Middle Fork Kaweah Valley and the Central Valley. Tharps Rock is named after Hale Tharp, a Gold Rush-era arrival in California who became the first documented European American to settle in Giant Forest. Tharp lived for a while in the hollowed-out trunk of a fallen sequoia, which today is still preserved as Tharps Log at Log Meadow in Giant Forest.

Tharp's Rock
Leaving Tharps Rock, the trail continued its final steep ascent, barreling up a shallow granite chute that was dotted with the last of the foxtail pines. The aggressive uphill grade and the high altitude combined to make this part of the hike the most challenging stretch of this otherwise-straightforward trail. The summit was now visible, rising at the top of the granite chute. A constant push up this trail finally brought me to the edge of the northern cliffs of Alta Peak, just short of the actual summit.

Foxtail pines on Alta Peak
From these massive cliffs above the north face of the mountain, I had a terrific view of the Lakes Basin below me, with Aster and Emerald Lake visible in one basin and Pear Lake in a separate basin of polished granite. Twin-summited Mount Silliman rose across the valley.

Aster, Emerald, and Pear Lakes with Mount Silliman
After briefly skirting the rim of Alta Peak’s north face, the trail ended at the base of the rocky summit block. A bit of scrambling brought me to the very top of Alta Peak, 11208 feet above sea level. There was not much space to spread out here, as the summit is angled to one side with cliffs off the other side, so on a busier day you might want to enjoy your lunch from the many viewpoints below the summit. However, you’ll want to at least spend some time checking out the view up here, as that view is nothing short of incredible.

From the top of Alta Peak, I had an expansive panorama encompassing not only the portion of the Great Western Divide that I had seen on the hike up, but the barren granite landscape of the Tablelands to the north and east and the rugged peaks of Kings Canyon National Park in the distance. Most remarkable was the high ridge that made up the northern end of the Great Western Divide, which included the craggy forms of Table Mountain, North and South Guard Peaks, and Mount Brewer. Behind the Tablelands I could see the Monarch Divide rising above Kings Canyon, with North Palisade rising even further in the distance. At the other end of the Great Western Divide, I could see all of the high peaks around the Mineral King valley, as well as the distinctive dip of Farewell Gap east of Vandever Peak. In between, Mount Stewart, Eagle Scout Peak, and Mount Eisen were among the most prominent of the peaks here, while the colorful Kaweah Peaks rising in the background provided a strong contrast with what was otherwise a sea of gray rock. Through a gap in the Great Western Divide rose distant Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the 48 states.

Great Western Divide and Mineral King peaks
Great Western Divide and Mount Whitney
Mount Brewer and Table Mountain at the northern end of the Great Western Divide
To the west, I could see down to Aster Lake, with Big Baldy, Little Baldy, Moro Rock, and Castle Rocks among the many granite domes dotting the otherwise forested landscape. On this clear spring day, I could see even beyond those peaks and past the foothills into the Central Valley, with the Temblor and Caliente Ranges visible far into the distance in the California Coast Ranges.

This is surely the most superlative view accessible by day hike on a maintained trail in the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. I spent a good amount of time savoring the view at the summit, although I was not alone: at least thirty other people were in the vicinity of the summit during the time I was at or near the top, as the amazing views make this is a somewhat popular hike despite its length, altitude, and difficulty. While less popular than the Lakes Trail that departs from the same trailhead, you should still expect plenty of company on the way to Alta Peak. It’s absolutely worth it for the views, though. No serious California hiker should miss the panoramas from Alta Peak.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Lakes Trail (Sequoia NP)

Alta Peak rises above the granite bowl of Pear Lake
12.5 miles round trip, 2800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park entrance fee required

The Lakes Trail in California’s Sequoia National Park certainly lives up to its name: over its six-mile journey from Wolverton Trailhead, the hike visits four High Sierra alpine lakes, each more beautiful than the last, until culminating in the exquisite polished-granite scenery of Pear Lake. En route, the trail delivers great views of the cascading waters and granite walls of Tokopah Valley, with a thrilling stretch of trail cut into the cliffs near a soaring granite spire known as the Watchtower. Although by no means an easy hike, most visitors to Sequoia National Park may find this slightly long but very doable day hike to be the easiest way to access the park’s famed but notoriously hard-to-reach High Sierra backcountry. That makes the Lakes Trail an extremely popular hike- so expect to share the trail with hundreds of fellow hikers on nice summer weekends.

Around 2 miles in, the Lakes Trail splits into the Watchtower Trail and the Hump Trail; the Hump Trail is typically open for travel all year while the Watchtower Trail is closed through winter until snow and ice melt out on the route in late spring or early summer. I’ll describe a route to the lakes that takes the Watchtower Trail both on the outbound and return legs of the hike, as the Watchtower Trail is far more scenic; but early season hikers may find that they will need to the Hump Trail instead, adding some elevation gain (but no additional distance) to this hike.

I hiked the Lakes Trail to Pear Lake on a June weekend during a year with lower than normal Sierra Nevada snowpack. The hike started from the Wolverton Trailhead in Sequoia National Park, which can be accessed from the Central Valley by either taking Highway 180 into Kings Canyon National Park or Highway 198 into Sequoia National Park. Both routes require taking Generals Highway to the stretch between Giant Forest and Lodgepole; the turnoff for Wolverton is well marked and heads east from Generals Highway. I followed Wolverton Road for about two miles to its end, passing the turnoff for the General Sherman Tree parking area along the way. There is a long parking lot with room for well over a hundred cars at the end of the Wolverton Road; the Lakes Trail starts from the segment of the parking lot just to the left of the entrance to the lot.

Leaving the Wolverton Trailhead, I started out by following the Lakes Trail north from the parking lot. The trail climbed briefly and in a hundred meters reached the crest of a ridge; here, the trail turned towards the right and began following the ridge to the east. The trail climbed steadily over the next 2/3 of a mile as it ascended along this forested ridge, passing patches of early summer wildflowers that provided the main interest in this opening stretch of the hike. There were occasional peeks of rocky Mount Silliman rising on the other side of Tokopah Valley through the trees, but otherwise there were no real views to speak of.

Wildflowers on the trail
Early summer wildflowers
At a mile into the hike, the trail leveled out for a stretch and soon left the top of the ridge, instead passing through forested mountain slopes above Wolverton Creek while again ascending steadily. The forest gave way to some grassy and brushy clearings as the trail crossed a small creek; while passing through the clearing, I heard some rustling in the bushes downhill from the trail and realized I was standing perhaps just 50 feet from a black bear! We locked eyes for a moment, before the bear, seemingly annoyed that I had disrupted his meal, lumbered off a little farther downhill to continue nibbling on the vegetation, still within eyesight.

Out of focus bear amongst the aspens
At 1.8 miles from the trailhead, I came to a fork in the trail: the Lakes Trail continued to the left while the Panther Gap Trail headed to the right. I continued on the Lakes Trail, taking the left fork, which began a more aggressive climb through the forest. At 2.1 miles from the trailhead, I came to another fork in the trail, where the Lakes Trail split into the Watchtower and the Hump Trails. Both of these trails lead to Heather Lake and beyond; however, the Watchtower Trail is far more scenic and has less elevation gain so it is the preferred route despite being slightly longer. Early in the summer, before snow has melted sufficiently, the Watchtower Trail may be closed and it may be necessary to take the Hump Trail instead. Hikers with a fear of heights may also prefer the Hump Trail, as it skips over the cliff-edge route of the Watchtower Trail.

Lakes Trail winding through the pines
The Watchtower Trail marked the start of the spectacular scenery that characterizes the latter half of this hike. After initially following the Watchtower Trail for 1.1 miles through the forest, ascending steadily from the junction with the Hump Trail, the trail very suddenly broke out of the forest at 3.2 miles from the trailhead, coming to the south rim of Tokopah Valley right next to the Watchtower, a massive granite battlement that rose imperiously above the canyon below. Mount Silliman’s granite massif lay across Tokopah Valley, with Tokopah Falls- a continuous cascade plunging some 1200 feet over the course of half a mile- lay far below at the bottom of the valley. Granite peaks of the Tableland rose to the east.

Tokopah Valley from the Watchtower Overlook
Tokopah Falls
The Watchtower
Leaving the initial viewpoint, the Watchtower Trail generally stayed out in the open over the next 0.8 miles, at one point hugging the walls of Tokopah Valley on a trail blasted into the granite cliffs. The views here were airy and breathtaking: whenever I looked over the edge, I could see the granite walls of the canyon plunging to meet the cascading waters of Tokopah Falls. At 3.8 miles from the trailhead, the Watchtower Trail rounded a corner and turned right, leaving its perch above Tokopah Valley and heading in towards the basin that nestled Heather Lake. The Watchtower Trail joined back up with the Hump Trail at 4.1 miles from the trailhead (hikers taking the Hump Trail will be 3.7 miles from the trailhead but will have to add an additional 250 feet of elevation gain to this hike for the round trip).

Trail cut into the granite walls of Tokopah Valley
Shortly after the two trails rejoined, the Lakes Trail arrived at Heather Lake, now 4 miles from the trailhead. The main trail stayed north of the lakeshore except for briefly accessing the lake at the lake’s outlet; for the best views, I followed a spur trail to the lake that broke off shortly before reaching the outlet. Heather Lake was idyllic and pretty, ringed with trees and with a granite cliff rising behind it; ultimately, it was also the most pedestrian of the lakes. While hikers looking for a shorter outing might want to visit Heather Lake and then head back, I strongly encourage hikers who have the time and energy to continue out to Pear Lake if they’ve already come out this far.

Heather Lake
Leaving Heather Lake, the trail climbed slightly and contoured around a low ridge separating Heather Lake from the Emerald and Aster Lake watershed. Entering the Emerald Lake basin, the scenery was already more spectacular than at Heather Lake: the jagged cliffs of Alta Peak rose at the head of the basin.

The trail descended slightly as it entered Emerald Lake’s basin and came to a junction at 5.1 miles. Here, a spur trail split to the right of the trail, leading 150 meters slightly uphill and crossing the outlet stream of Emerald Lake to reach the shores of Emerald Lake itself. Emerald Lake is perhaps the quietest of the three main lakes, with fewer visitors than the constant flow of visitors who make it to Heather Lake but also fewer than Pear Lake as most hikers coming this far make a beeline for the end of the trail. However, despite its relative quiet, Emerald Lake is a gorgeous spot: granite outcrops by the shoreline provided a perfect spot for me to enjoy views of this gem of a lake with a backdrop of Alta Peak’s granite ramparts.

Emerald Lake
Continuing on the Lakes Trail from the Emerald Lake spur, I passed through a meadow with some nice views of Alta Peak to the back before entering a landscape of barren granite. The mountains were extremely bright at midday, with the pinks and the greys of the granite reflecting the harsh sunlight from all directions. As the trail contoured around the base of another ridge, I had outstanding views of Aster Lake nestled in the basin below the trail, with the twin granite peaks of Mount Silliman rising across Tokopah Valley.

Mount Silliman rising over Aster Lake
Ridges of Alta Peak rising above meadow near Emerald Lake
As the trail ascended gently and wrapped around the granite slopes, better views unfurled all around. To the west, the Watchtower came back into view, its peak now appearing more sharp and pronounced as it towered over Tokopah Valley. Big Baldy, a granite dome in neighboring Kings Canyon National Park, popped out as well. To the east and north, I had my closest look at the Tableland, a high plateau of barren granite that lies to the northeast of Alta Peak. At 5.8 miles, I passed a junction with a trail descending to the Pear Lake Ranger Station, which is actually a backcountry ski hut for hardy winter visitors. The broader views evaporated as I entered the basin containing Pear Lake, but I still had memorable views over Pear Lake’s outlet stream cascading down bare granite ledges to meet the Marble Fork Kaweah River. Alta Peak rose ahead, towering above the basin with foxtail pines dotting the attendant ridges. Finally, at 6.3 miles, the Lakes Trail ended at the northwest shore of Pear Lake. There was plenty of room for hikers who made it this far to spread out and enjoy the view.

Looking out to the Watchtower and Big Baldy
The bare granite of the Tableland
Pear Lake was the crown jewel of this hike, with beauty that affirms its status as a true High Sierra alpine lake. The lake is set in a granite bowl at the base of Alta Peak’s rocky crest, with foxtail pines dotting the basin around the lake. Pear Lake’s hourglass shape- which prompted earlier visitors to name it after a similarly shaped fruit- made the lake particularly attractive. A few patches of snow still dotted Alta Peak but the mountain’s snowpack was worryingly low considering my early June visit, an early portent of the dry conditions that year that would later spark the KNP Complex Fire which devastated Sequoia National Park.

Alta Peak rises over Pear Lake
Pear Lake is a popular camping destination, so there are bear boxes and a vault toilet on the northwest shore of the lake. It’s possible to venture along the east shore of the lake from the campsites and explore open granite slopes that run down to the lake: it’s much quieter here with equally good views. I found nice views from further along the shore of Mount Silliman rising above Pear Lake.

Mount Silliman rises above Pear Lake
Although this hike is somewhat longer and moderately difficult, it is still a very popular hike, as it provides the easiest access to the High Sierra in Sequoia National Park. Thus, I saw many hikers over the course of the day, with probably over 20 hikers at Pear Lake during my time there and over a hundred hikers on the trail over the course of the day. Despite the hike’s popularity, the fine scenery along this trail recommends this hike in Sequoia National Park as one of the better day hikes accessible by a paved road from the western slope of the Sierra Nevada.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Little Baldy (Sequoia-Kings Canyon)

Mount Eisen and Sawtooth Peak from Little Baldy
3.5 miles round trip, 800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Sequoia National Park entrance fee required

While overcrowded Moro Rock gets the most love of the granite domes of California’s Sequoia National Park, the much higher granite dome of Little Baldy provides nearly equal views of the snowy Sierra Nevada with just a fraction of the tourist hordes that crowd Moro Rock and nearby Giant Forest. Seeing the majestic granite wall of the Great Western Divide is a key visitor experience at Sequoia National Park and almost all visitors get their fix on the narrow rock staircase of Moro Rock. Little Baldy offers a comparable view on a slightly longer but eminently enjoyable hike- it’s a worthy and recommendable hike for casual visitors who want to experience the park’s alpine beauty with a bit more peace and quiet.

We hiked Little Baldy on the last day of a Memorial Day weekend trip to Sequoia National Park. The trail is most easily accessed from Highway 180 and the Grant Grove entrance to Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. From Fresno, follow Highway 180 east to the Grant Grove entrance and then follow Generals Highway south for 18 miles to reach the trailhead at Little Baldy Saddle. From the Giant Forest Museum, it is a straightforward eleven-mile drive north along Generals Highway to reach Little Baldy Saddle. There are wide shoulder pulloffs on both sides of the road at Little Baldy Saddle for parking, but no toilet; the limited parking, which can accommodate about 10-12 cars, reflects the fact that this hike is far quieter than Giant Forest.

The Little Baldy Trail started on the east side of Generals Highway, immediately embarking on an uphill climb through a pine forest through a short series of switchbacks. The trail had a comfortable dirt tread but ascended at a steady, moderate grade. While the forest near the trailhead was initially fairly intact, we soon began entering burn zones with varying degrees of damage done by the 2021 KNP Complex Fire. In some areas, the fire had been quite severe, blackening the ground and killing the pines entirely; in other areas, bushes, flowers, and other underbrush remained virtually untouched.

Burnt forest
As the trail passed through some longer switchbacks, partial views to the northwest began opening up. The most notable element of this view was the larger, rounded granite dome of nearby Big Baldy, but this also provided a spot for me to assess some of the damage from the KNP Complex Fire. Thankfully, I was able to confirm from these views that Muir Grove, a particularly majestic grove of Giant Sequoias across a small drainage, was largely intact, with most of the broccoli tops of its mature giant sequoias still fully green. However, it was clear that the fire had badly scorched the slopes of Big Baldy a little farther away; later that day, I would discover unspeakably tragic destruction that the fire wrought in Redwood Mountain Grove.

Big Baldy and Muir Grove
We saw no fewer than seven marmots over the course of the hike: these furry rodents were happily nibbling away at trailside plants until they noticed our approach and scurried into their underground homes.

After 1.1 miles of continuous ascent and about 600 feet of elevation gain, we arrived along the ridgeline of Little Baldy. The trail finally flattened out from the extended (though moderate) ascent. Here, I encountered some severe fire damage as I followed the undulating and wide ridgeline: quite a few trees of this ridgetop forest had been consumed in conflagrations. Much of the soil here had been turned over, evidence of an intense and ultimately unsuccessful effort by firefighters to stop the fire here and prevent its northward spread towards Redwood Mountain Grove.

After a flat stretch, the trail began another brief gentle ascent that peaked at an open granite outcrop that provided our first views to the east, at 1.4 miles from the trailhead. And what views! The nearby summits of Mount Silliman and Alta Peak dominated the view, still capped in early season snow. Farther away, we could see many peaks of the Great Western Divide.

Great Western Divide views along the ridge
Leaving this granite outcrop, the trail dropped briefly to a forested saddle and then began a longer final climb to the summit of Little Baldy. The trail wrapped climbed steadily through the forest and wrapped around to the east side of the ridge before popping out onto the open granite just about fifty meters short of the summit. Here, the marked trail ended; a final short ascent up the granite dome brought us to the summit of Little Baldy at 8044 feet above sea level.

Final approach to Little Baldy's summit
We were treated to a sweeping, 360-degree panorama at the summit, with the Great Western Divide to the east, Giant Forest and the foothills to the south, and the Central Valley to the west. Mount Silliman and Alta Peak were the closest mountains to the east, with the snowy granite Tableland of the Kings-Kaweah Divide visible between those two prominent peaks. Even from this distance, we could see the silver thread of Tokopah Falls cascading down the granite slopes in the deep valley between Silliman and Alta. South of Alta Peak rose the mighty wall of the Great Western Divide: Mount Kaweah, Mount Eisen, Sawtooth Peak, and Vandever Mountain were among the prominent and snowy summits visible from Little Baldy. While we could not really see much of the Middle Fork Kaweah Canyon itself, we could see Paradise Peak and Castle Rocks on the south side of the canyon and we could even see the small rocky fin of Moro Rock rising out of Giant Forest’s expanse of green broccoli-top sequoias. Past Castle Rocks, the Sierra Nevada dropped off precipitously to the foothills and then to the flat agricultural fields of the Central Valley. The Caliente and Temblor Ranges were visible west across the Central Valley, while the high peak of distant Mount Pinos in the Transverse Ranges was visible at the southern end of the valley on this clear day.

Great Western Divide
Mount Silliman, Alta Peak, and Tokopah Falls
Foothills and Central Valley from Little Baldy
Large swaths of devastated forest incinerated by the 2021 KNP Complex Fire were visible. On the ridge running south from Little Baldy, I spotted the badly burned Suwanee Grove, where only a handful of green mature sequoia tops were mingled with a graveyard of pine and sequoia corpses. The forests on the slopes west of Giant Forest were also severely burned; Little Baldy provided an excellent vantage point of how close Giant Forest was to reaching its demise last year. While giant sequoias generally benefited from past wildfires, a drier and hotter climate in the Sierra Nevada has led to multiple deadly conflagrations since 2015 that have wiped out at least a fifth of the population of mature sequoias in just a few short years. It’s a sobering reminder of the consequences of human-driven climate change and a call to action for us to demand policies that can have real effects to mitigate the damage.

Giant Forest, KNP Complex burn scars, Moro Rock, and Castle Rocks
Suwanee Grove fire damage
We saw about ten other hiking groups on this trail on a nice Memorial Day morning in about two and a half hours of hiking; while at the summit, we had the views entirely to ourselves for about 15 minutes.

Little Baldy is a lovely and quieter Sequoia National Park hike with fabulous views of the Great Western Divide. While more rugged hikers may be better off spending their time exploring the High Sierra trails of Mineral King or hiking Alta Peak, most casual hikers will find this hike to be in their sweet spot. This is a recommended trail for those visitors who want to enjoy mountain views without too much distance and elevation gain or too many crowds.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Mitchell Peak

Great Western Divide from Mitchell Peak
6 miles round trip, 2100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Rough and narrow dirt road to trailhead, Kings Canyon National Park entrance fee required

Mitchell Peak is an oft-overlooked destination in between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks where a relatively easy hike to its summit unlocks a sweeping panorama of the High Sierra peaks. The primary reason for the peak’s lack of crowds is that it technically lies within Sequoia National Forest and not within the park proper of either Sequoia or Kings Canyon; furthermore, the access road to this trailhead requires an hour’s drive detour from Generals Highway and ends with a bumpy dirt road. The trail itself is pleasant if not spectacular, sticking to the forest for its length until arriving at this 10365-foot high summit that sticks out just enough above the forest to deliver memorable views. While there are better day hikes for High Sierra scenery in Sequoia and Kings Canyon- Alta Peak near Wolverton and any of the hikes around Mineral King come to mind- Mitchell Peak is a way to access this lovely scenery with a less intense physical effort and is certainly a worthy place to explore for frequent visitors looking to branch out from the better-loved hikes in the main parks.

Although this hike is on Sequoia National Forest land and does not technically enter Kings Canyon National Park until reaching the summit of Mitchell Peak, the Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park entrance fee is required as you must take Generals Highway through Kings Canyon National Park to reach the trailhead.

From Fresno, I followed Highway 180 east up through the foothills into the park, passing the Grant Grove entrance kiosk. Two miles after passing the entrance kiosk, I came to the junction between the road to Cedar Grove and the Generals Highway; here, I turned right and followed Generals Highway, which continued climbing over the next 8 miles to a saddle on Big Baldy Ridge. Immediately after the trail started descending after passing the Big Baldy Trailhead, I turned left onto Forest Road 14S11 heading towards the Big Meadow Horse Corral. I followed this road for the next 10 miles, first passing numerous campgrounds on the way to Big Meadow and then dropping into and climbing out of a dramatic canyon before coming to a junction with Forest Road 13S12 for Marvin Pass. The road past the Big Meadow Horse Corral was paved but undivided; there were steep drop-offs when the road traveled through the canyon and there were a few potholes along the way.

Turning right onto Road 13S12, I followed this bumpy, rocky, and often-rutted dirt road for the last 3 miles uphill to a large dirt parking lot, the Marvin Pass Trailhead. I negotiated the road in my lower clearance sedan and was okay, although I did feel uncomfortable with some of the ruts in the road at times; most cars should be able to manage it but drive slowly and use caution.

Leaving the trailhead at 8400 feet, the Marvin Pass Trail immediately embarked on a steady uphill climb through forest, ascending along a low ridge for 0.3 miles. As the trail leveled out and headed south, it passed by a few small meadows.

At a half mile into the hike, the trail began switchbacking up a forested slope. This was the most extended ascent of the hike, ending at a mile into the hike when the trail arrived atop forested, 9100-foot high Marvin Pass. Here, the trail entered the Jennie Lakes Wilderness and came to a junction of trails. While the trail heading across the pass led towards Weaver Lake and Jennie Lake, I chose to the take the left fork, which headed for Mitchell Peak.

Entering the Jennie Lakes Wilderness at Marvin Pass
Leaving the pass, the trail stuck to the forested south side of the ridge for the next three-quarters mile, taking a much more gradual ascent up the mountainside. A few snow plants provided intense pops of color from the dirt of the forest floor. There were few views to speak of, although the forest along the trail was occasionally punctuated by small, pretty meadows dotted with wildflowers. At times, these meadows provided tiny glimpses of the farther forests and small rocky peaks that dot the Jennie Lakes Wilderness.
Snow plant
At 1.8 miles into the hike, I came to a small wooden sign marking the turnoff to the left for the Mitchell Peak Trail. This trail turned from the main trail and immediately embarked on an aggressive and direct uphill climb through brush that ascended 400 feet and brought me to a forested saddle on the west ridge of Mitchell Peak at 2.2 miles. The trail remained in the forest here as it began to wrap around the northern side of Mitchell Peak, leveling out for a stretch before beginning another aggressive final ascent along the north ridge towards the summit.

The trail petered out at the base of the talus-covered summit. From here, I scrambled up through the talus towards the clear high point of this pile of rocks and before I knew it, I was standing atop Mitchell Peak, 10365 feet above sea level. 

Rocky summit of Mitchell Peak
The view atop Mitchell Peak was sweeping, encompassing much of the Kings Canyon High Sierra. Highlights included seeing the towering peaks above Kings Canyon grow ever higher, from Spanish Mountain to the Monarch Divide to Mount Clarence King. North Palisade rose above all to the north, the dominating peak of this area that, at 14250 feet tall, is the third-highest peak of the Sierra Nevada. Kearsarge Pass was blocked from view by lower peaks but both Mount Gould and University Peak, which flank that pass over the Sierra crest, were visible. 

Spanish Mountain and the Obelisk rise over Kings Canyon
Monarch Divide, with North Palisade in the distance
Mount Clarence King and the Kings Canyon backcountry
Most impressive was the soaring rocky ridgeline connecting North Guard Peak, Mount Brewer, South Guard Peak, and Table Mountain, which made up the northernmost stretch of the Great Western Divide. The Sequoia National Park stretch of the Great Western Divide was partially visible, with the sharp summits of the Kaweah Peaks notably sticking out here. Alta Peak poked out from behind Mount Silliman, which was particularly attractive with its granite cliffs when viewed from this northern angle. Forested hills that terminated in abruptly steep granite cliffs characterized the terrain of the nearby Jennie Lakes Wilderness and to the west and northwest I spotted landmarks such as the Buck Rock Lookout, Panoramic Point near Grant Grove, and Kaiser Peak up near Huntington Lake. What an utterly spectacular 360-degree panorama- and it was a view that I had all to myself for an entire hour!

Alta Peak and Mount Silliman
Great Western Divide
On my return to the trailhead, I began passing a trickle of incoming hikers; still, when I returned to the parking lot, there were no more than 8 cars parked here. This is a reasonably quiet and easy hike to see the high country beauty of Sequoia-Kings Canyon, where most hikes to such scenery are either hard, crowded, or both. I’d still recommend one-time visitors to the parks to stick to the main visitor areas and Mineral King, but locals or frequent visitors should certainly check out Mitchell Peak.